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Thriving public access TV stations providing venue for Western Pa. voices

| Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014, 7:56 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
At the Robert Morris University Island Sports Center, Kristen Kudla trains the camera on the action below for the Moon Community Access Television (MCA-TV,) Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014. MCA-TV was filming a Robert Morris University hockey game.

Lightweight boxer “Lightning” Rod Salka dominated in a decision win at Consol Energy Center last month, a public access talk show cohost told the fighter by phone.

Salka held on to his title in a fight against Monty Meza-Clay because of his aggressiveness, Al Levine, “The Talking Machine,” told the fighter during his call-in sports talk show, “Pittsburgh Sportsline,” on Bethel Park Public Access TV.

“Forget the tactics. Let's talk about the hand speed,” said Munhall resident Zach Brenner, 30, a cohost.

Levine established the show, which features discussions with amateur and professional athletes and local residents, three years ago, and it's the most popular, regularly running show on BPTV, judging by its YouTube views, said Dave Cable, BPTV facility director.

“I think the draw is our unique conversational tone that we have on our Tuesday night show. And we're opinionated, but we're respectful of other people and ourselves,” said Levine, 58, a Bethel Park resident.

The number of programs broadcast by local public access stations is increasing because the shows are free or inexpensive for residents to produce, and they give average people venues to express themselves, local station officials said. Many locally produced TV shows appear online, increasing their visibility.

Many small towns don't receive regular media coverage, so they offer public, educational or government, so-called PEG, access channels about activities in the community, said Mike Wassenaar, president of the Alliance for Community Media in Minneapolis.

Plum, Pittsburgh, Upper St. Clair, Mt. Lebanon, Moon, Peters and Sewickley are local towns with PEG stations.

Program lineups can run the gamut from informative to quirky. School board and council meetings, cooking shows, high school and college sports, talk shows, religious services, senior citizens' fitness classes and tai chi instruction typically are on the schedules.

‘One of the most active'

Moon Cable Access Television, or MCA-TV, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary in January, is owned and operated by the township, said Liz Barentine, MCA-TV director of community programming.

“We're one of the most active stations in the area,” she said.

Unlike most public access stations, MCA-TV has a production trailer to shoot on location and offers some of the most extensive sports coverage in the area, she said.

With two staff members and about 50 trained volunteers, MCA-TV has an annual budget of about $300,000, which comes from Moon, mostly through the cable TV franchise fees that Comcast and Verizon pay Moon annually.

After taking four 1½-hour training courses, residents can borrow production equipment for free to produce shows outside the MCA-TV station, Barentine said.

Many communities fund PEG operations through franchise fees that cable companies pay to use local rights-of-way, but with budgets growing tighter, more government agencies are using the fees to finance other municipal needs, Wassenaar said.

Between 2005 and 2010, at least 100 PEG stations shut down nationwide because of municipal budget cuts and more restrictive state laws, but Pennsylvania stations seem to be faring OK, he said. There is no accurate count of PEG stations today, but around 2005, the alliance estimated there were 1,500 operators of 3,000 channels in the nation, he said.

‘Much more freedom'

Bethel Park owns and operates public-access and government-access stations from its municipal building, said Cable, the only paid staff member at BPTV.

Founded in 1990, BPTV produced 374 shows last year and this year expects to produce 400, Cable said.

Homewood resident Shirley Douglas hosts a 13-year-old show, “The Shirley Jones Douglas Show,” at North Side-based Pittsburgh Community Television, or PCTV21, an independent public access station that broadcasts mostly to Pittsburgh households.

“There's much more freedom in public access TV… (to) get points across, get issues taken care of. On regular television, you do not have that privilege,” Douglas said.

At PCTV21, community members produce about 700 hours of programming annually, while the PCTV volunteers and staff produce 100 to 150 hours, which include televised Pittsburgh Public Schools board meetings, said John Patterson, PCTV21 executive director.

Of PCTV21's $500,000 annual budget, about 85 percent comes from Comcast and Verizon subscription fees, while the rest comes from the station's fees for production classes, studio use and equipment rentals, he said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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